When Spike Jonze’s Her came out in 2013, the film about a lonely man falling for an artificially intelligent operating system won widespread praise. Watching today, the qualities critics celebrated at the time are still there—it’s a gentle, enjoyably melancholy story, twee but not damnably so—but something else stands out. Though set in the near-future, Her captures Obama-era techno-optimism better than any other movie. It’s a time capsule, preserving dreams about the future that appear more naive the further we get from the 2010s.
Her takes place in a highly-stylized version of Los Angeles from a future near enough that its protagonist is a former LA Weekly journalist but distant enough that the skyline rivals Shanghai. In the film’s universe, the creation of the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system—a consumer software capable of learning and thinking like a human—is a recent, exciting development. Shortly after Her begins, the painfully lonesome and powerfully mustachioed writer Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) buys one of these new operating systems. Voiced by Scarlett Johannson, the OS names itself “Samantha,” and quickly becomes the most important companion in Theodore’s life. He soon starts calling her his girlfriend.
Although the phrase “artificial general intelligence” isn’t used in the movie, Samantha’s description of her capabilities sounds like AGI. “I have intuition,” she explains. “What makes me me is my ability to grow through my experiences.”
Watching Her today, as AI advances dominate conversations in tech, it’s interesting to see the warm-and-fuzzy approach to the rise of AGI companions. There’s no hint of a heel turn from Samantha. Near the end of the film, Theodore is distraught when she reveals that he’s not her only boyfriend—she has over 600 other romantic partners—but her polyamory is portrayed as evidence that she and Theodore are not compatible rather than something sinister on her part. She’s portrayed as inherently good, a sensitive and kind being with no ill will toward the humans who created her.
While Theodore’s ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) dismisses his relationship with an OS as a sign of emotional immaturity, most of the people in Theodore’s life accept it fairly easily. He goes on a double-date with his co-worker and his co-worker’s human girlfriend without any fuss or embarrassment, and he hears stories about other people dating operating systems as well. The dynamic is quickly normalized, which seems even more plausible now, as people across the world are starting to “socialize” with character AIs with increasing frequency. The AI girlfriend experience isn’t sci-fi anymore. It’s just something lonely people do.
The sweetness of the human-robot relationship portrayed by Her comes across as quaint right now. But really, the most remarkable, startling aspect of rewatching Her a decade after its release has nothing to do with the AI romance. The thing that makes it really look like a fairy tale when viewed in 2023 isn’t that Samantha is benign. It’s that Samantha exists in a world where a non-famous working writer has a luxurious lifestyle. The quality of life in this future world is the most preposterous thing about it.
Theodore works for a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, where customers pay to outsource writing notes to loved ones. It’s unclear exactly how popular or profitable the company is, but it appears to have a handsome, spacious office in the downtown center. As he has no other means of income referenced and his family does not figure into the plot, there’s no indication that Theodore has inherited wealth or other revenue streams; he’s portrayed as an everyman, not a scion of privilege. He’s explicitly portrayed as not-a-genius; Samantha sorts through his journalistic work and politely concludes that only a fraction is worth preserving, No other literary triumphs warrant a mention. In other words, BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com appears to fund his lifestyle.
And, shit—his lifestyle! Ole’ sad sack Theodore separated from his wife and is paying a divorce lawyer, but he’s able to afford a luxury apartment in a skyscraper, with windows stretching from gleaming floor to high ceiling, overlooking the twinkly city lights. (It should be illegal to mope around so much if your apartment has views like that.) He never mentions money woes. On the contrary, he spends freely, buying a top-of-the-line, brand-new operating system, eating at upscale restaurants, donning clothes nice enough that his coworkers comment on their quality. What’s the commission rate on those tearjerker letters, exactly? Plus, he even owns the intellectual property to the missives he produces on the job, since he’s able to package them and get a book deal toward the end of the film without consulting his employer. Talk about wish fulfillment!
The future Los Angeles Her shows is notable for how great everything looks, how comfortable people are. Yes, there’s smog. But there’s also excellent public transit, and apparently plentiful housing. The abrupt introduction of AGI into the world concerns some characters about whether it’s emotionally healthy to date the software, but it doesn’t generate any wider backlash. There’s no future shock, no social convulsions. There’s just arguments between individuals. The only conflicts are personal. (It’s actually very funny that Theodore owns an AGI and the only thing he does with it is date it.) Samantha and her ilk might steal your girl, but they’re not interested in supplanting humans elsewhere.
It’s a vision of the future that isn’t absent of tech critique—Jonze shows his characters isolating themselves in favor of screentime—but one which assumes the average American of the future will have a fancier life than people do now. People might be cooped up indoors arguing with holographic video games instead of making human connections, but they’re doing so in style. Economic progress is assumed.
The luxury in Her would be less conspicuous and inexplicable if Theodore was, I don’t know, a hedge fund manager or a software designer or even someone in the skilled trades. But he’s a writer. In a world where AGI exists. In a world where AGI is widely accepted and flourishing.
Theodore’s job is precisely the kind primed to be outsourced to AI. If somebody’s willing to hire a surrogate to impersonate them at their most allegedly heartfelt, they’re not going to care if the impersonator is flesh-and-blood or code-and-code. Yet, somehow, despite the advent of very obviously superior competition, Theodore’s career remains both stable and lucrative enough to afford an enviably bougie upper-middle-class lifestyle. Yeah, right.
The premise of Her is barely sci-fi now. There’s no artificial intelligence anywhere remotely as sophisticated as Samantha. AGI may never happen. But there are already people—like, a disconcerting number of people, not only a handful of social malcontents—who say they’re in love with AI chatbots. It would stand to reason, then, that Her should be more realistic now. Yet, in 2023, Her looks even more fantastical than when it debuted. People in the United States are increasingly skeptical that quality-of-life for the average American will improve in the future, with plenty of evidence to back up the pessimism. When Her came out in 2013, the decision to give its writer protagonist a luxe life looked logical enough. Now it plays like a visual gag—another signal this movie is squarely a fantasy.